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Air Force officer sees progress, still wary of surprises

[AP photo]
Crew members signal for launch as an F/A-18C Hornet leaves the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk.
©Associated Press
March 30, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Three-quarters of allied airstrikes are targeting Republican Guard forces that stand between advancing columns of U.S. ground troops and Saddam Hussein's government, a top American air officer said in an Associated Press interview Saturday.

From his desert command post in Saudi Arabia, Air Force Brig. Gen. Daniel Darnell also said U.S. and British warplanes during the past week have attacked virtually every military airfield in Iraq -- believed to number roughly 100 -- and have seen only a small number of planes.

Intensified allied airstrikes on Hussein's best ground forces coincide with efforts by the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force to consolidate their supply lines south of Baghdad before beginning a multipronged assault on the Republican Guard.

The intent is to severely weaken those forces so they will fall more quickly to American ground troops, minimizing U.S. casualties.

The air campaign against the Republican Guard ringing Baghdad intensified after the foul weather that had impeded air operations lifted a few days ago. Darnell said there will be no letup in airstrikes.

"That will increase at least a little more" in the days ahead, he said. The coalition has flown roughly 1,000 missions a day recently.

Darnell said that although much of Iraq's air defense network has been damaged or destroyed, it remains a threat around Baghdad because radars and other systems are moved frequently to avoid attack.

The Iraqi air force, which was vastly depleted in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, has not flown a single mission since the war began March 19, Darnell said. While that is good news for allied pilots, Darnell said he and other air war planners remain wary of the potential for Iraqi surprises.

The Iraqi air force is believed to have no more than 100 serviceable combat aircraft.

Darnell is director of a command post at Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan Air Base that runs all aspects of the air campaign. Known as the Combined Air Operations Center, it is headquarters for Darnell's boss, Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, the top air commander in the Persian Gulf.

Darnell disputed suggestions from some critics that the air campaign has failed to achieve its intended goals.

"We're on track thus far," he said. He said the military challenge is bigger than in the 1991 war, in which the air campaign lasted five weeks before allied ground forces prevailed in 100 hours of combat.

"We're faced with a much larger problem" this time, given that the entire territory of Iraq is a battlefield, whereas the 1991 conflict was focused on expelling the Iraqi army from Kuwait.

"Any insinuation or opinion that the air effort is not meeting objectives is misplaced," Darnell said.

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